Which Asian Nations Were Never Colonized by Europe?

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Japanese troops land on the Liaodong Peninsula during the Russo-Japanese War. May 5, 1904. DEA / G. Dagli Orti via Getty Images

Between the 16th and 20th centuries, various European nations set out to conquer the world and take all of its wealth. They seized lands in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, and Asia as colonies. Some countries were able to fend off annexation, however, either through rugged terrain, fierce fighting, skillful diplomacy, or a lack of attractive resources. Which Asian countries, then, escaped colonization by Europeans?

This question seems straightforward, but the answer is rather complicated. Many Asian regions escaped direct annexation as colonies by the European powers, yet were still under various degrees of domination by the western powers. Here, then are the Asian nations that were not colonized, roughly ordered from most autonomous to least autonomous:

  • Japan: Faced with the threat of western encroachment, Tokugawa Japan reacted by completely revolutionizing its social and political structures in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. By 1895, it was able to defeat the former East Asian great power, Qing China, in the First Sino-Japanese War. Meiji Japan stunned Russia and the other European powers in 1905 when it won the Russo-Japanese War. It would go on to annex Korea and Manchuria, and then seize much of Asia during World War II. Rather than being colonized, Japan became an imperial power in its own right.
  • Siam (Thailand): Late in the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Siam found itself in an uncomfortable position between the French imperial possessions of French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) to the east, and British Burma (now Myanmar) to the west. The Siamese king Chulalongkorn the Great, also called Rama V, managed to fend off both the French and the British through skillful diplomacy. He adopted many European customs and was intensely interested in European technologies. He also played the British and French off of one another, preserving most of Siam's territory and its independence.
  • The Ottoman Empire (Turkey): The Ottoman Empire was too large, powerful, and complex for any one European power to simply annex it outright. However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the European powers peeled off its territories in northern Africa and southeast Europe by seizing them directly or by encouraging and supplying local independence movements.  Beginning with the Crimean War (1853-56), the Ottoman government or Sublime Porte had to borrow money from European banks to finance its operations. When it was unable to repay the money it owed to the London and Paris-based banks, they took control of the Ottoman revenue system, seriously infringing on the Porte's sovereignty. Foreign interests also invested heavily in railroad, port, and infrastructure projects, giving them ever more power within the tottering empire. The Ottoman Empire remained self-governing until it fell after World War I, but foreign banks and investors wielded an inordinate amount of power there.
  • China: Like the Ottoman Empire, Qing China was too large for any single European power to simply grab. Instead, Britain and France got a foothold through trade, which they then expanded through the First and Second Opium Wars. Once they had gained major concessions in the treaties following those wars, other powers such as Russia, Italy, the US, and even Japan demanded similar favored nation status. The powers divided coastal China up into "spheres of influence" and stripped the hapless Qing Dynasty of much of its sovereignty, without ever actually annexing the country. Japan did annex the Qing homeland of Manchuria in 1931, however.
  • Afghanistan: Both Great Britain and Russia hoped to seize Afghanistan as part of their "Great Game" - a competition for land and influence in Central Asia. However, the Afghans had other ideas; they famously "don't like foreigners with guns in their country," as Zbigniew Brzezinski once remarked. They slaughtered or captured an entire British army in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839 - 1842), with only one army medic making it back to India to tell the tale.  In the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878 - 1880), Britain fared somewhat better. It was able to make a deal with the newly-installed ruler, Amir Abdur Rahman, that gave Britain control of Afghanistan's foreign relations, while the amir took care of domestic matters. This shielded British India from Russian expansionism while leaving Afghanistan more or less independent.
  • Persia (Iran): Like Afghanistan, the British and Russians considered Persia an important piece in the Great Game. During the 19th century, Russia nibbled away at northern Persian territory in the Caucasus and in what is now Turkmenistan. Britain extended its influence into the eastern Persian Balochistan region, which bordered on part of British India (now Pakistan). In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention laid out a British sphere of influence in Balochistan, while Russia got a sphere of influence covering most of the northern half of Persia. Like the Ottomans, the Qajar rulers of Persia had borrowed money from European banks for projects like railroads and other infrastructure improvements, and could not pay back the money.  Britain and Russia agreed without consulting the Persian government that they would split the revenues from Persian customs, fisheries, and other industries to amortize the debts. Persia never became a formal colony, but it temporarily lost control of its revenue stream and much of its territory - a source of bitterness to this day.
  • Other cases: Nepal, Bhutan, Korea, Mongolia, and the Middle Eastern protectorates:  Several other Asian countries escaped formal colonization by European powers.
  • Nepal lost about one-third of its territory to the British East India Company's much larger armies in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816 (also called the Gurkha War). However, the Gurkhas fought so well and the land was so rugged that the British decided to leave Nepal alone as a buffer state for British India. The British also began to recruit Gurkhas for their colonial army.
  • Bhutan, another Himalayan kingdom, also faced invasion by the British East India Company but managed to retain its sovereignty. The British sent a force into Bhutan from 1772 to 1774 and seized some territory, but in a peace treaty, they relinquished the land in return for a tribute of five horses and the right to harvest timber on Bhutanese soil. Bhutan and Britain regularly squabbled over their borders until 1947, when the British pulled out of India, but Bhutan's sovereignty was never seriously threatened.
  • Korea was a tributary state under Qing Chinese protection until 1895, when Japan seized it in the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan formally colonized Korea in 1910, foreclosing that option for the European powers.
  • Mongolia also was a tributary of the Qing. After the Last Emperor fell in 1911, Mongolia was independent for some time, but it fell under Soviet domination from 1924 to 1992 as the Mongolian People's Republic.
  • As the Ottoman Empire gradually weakened and then fell, its territories in the Middle East became British or French protectorates. They were nominally autonomous, and had local rulers, but depended on the European powers for military defense and foreign relations. Bahrain and what is now the United Arab Emirates became British protectorates in 1853. Oman joined them in 1892, as did Kuwait in 1899 and Qatar in 1916.  In 1918, the League of Nations assigned Britain a mandate over Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan (now Jordan). France got mandatory power over Syria and Lebanon. None of these territories was a formal colony, but they were also far from sovereign.